The Case of the Great Pandemic Liturgical Flip-Flop

This sacred Council has several aims in view: it desires to impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful; to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church. The Council therefore sees particularly cogent reasons for undertaking the reform and promotion of the liturgy.

The Second Vatican Council “desire[d] to impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful” (Sacrosanctam Concilium § 1). That vigor has recently been aimed in many awkward directions. The stresses of COVID-19 and the various strategies we have used to mitigate the disease have revealed our own liturgical-theological incoherence. The tension lies not only between schools of liturgical preference, but also within many of us as individuals who are trying to make sense of being Catholic in a world which finds proximity to our neighbors problematic. In this regard I am struck by what appears to be a kind of flip-flop in the Church.

Our immediate responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic have placed many of us in the position of practicing and even arguing for a position that we had previously held suspect. This affords us the opportunity to see the Church and ourselves in a new light. I hope this points to greater unity in the Body of Christ, but I have concern for what the stress of COVID has revealed about our liturgical sensibilities and where we focus our energy. Our current disheveled state offers us a chance to gain meaningful insight into the Liturgy, but it means we must face our own inconsistencies. In short, we must face the awkward vigor of Christian life.

It is helpful to paint with a broad brush and name two common stereotypes as we reflect on our present liturgical sensibilities. At least since the liturgical reforms which motivated the Second Vatican Council, and were endorsed by it, there have been two crowds. Today we label them the “pre-Vatican II” and the “post-Vatican II” crowds.

Those who look to the earlier tradition find an anchor in the reforms from the 16th century council of Trent, and often use “Tridentine” to name their preferred ritual life, which is also called the “extraordinary form” or the vetus ordo. These Catholics are considered theologically conservative and might prefer kneeling to standing and reception of Holy Communion on the tongue instead of on the hand. Pre-Vatican II Catholicism is also associated with clericalism.

Post-Vatican II Catholicism is associated with the laity. It considers itself theologically progressive, and prefers the novus ordo as a feature of Catholicism after Vatican II. Those Catholics prefer the vernacular to Latin, standing to kneeling, and have no reservations about extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist or reception in the hand before consuming the Sacrament. Like all stereotypes, these can be too simplistic, but like most signs, they reveal things even as much as they hide them. We can all identify friends who tend to one end of that spectrum or the other. Many of us can identify ourselves on that spectrum, as well.

Most are familiar with the interpretations of Vatican II that emphasize a certain newness by recommending subsidiarity, increased lay leadership, and a turn away from priestly autonomy and even authority in parish life. Instead of looking to centralized command in the pope, this reading of the Second Vatican Council looks for local solutions. Instead of reserving “Father’s” entire social life to the elitist presbyterate, the parish priest is to be friends with his fellow parishioners. The laity are to be visible in their leadership roles at liturgy.

At the heart of this reading of post-Vatican II ecclesial life is a rejection of clericalism. Clerics are not to be privileged for their status, training, or role in the Church. Holiness and participation in the Eucharist is the call of all the baptized faithful, and not only the ordained clerics. This reading of Vatican II recognizes the tendency to mistake the role of the high priest as one who is “in charge” instead of one who offers sacrifice for the people. The Church is open-minded and not afraid of the multitude of expressions of the faith, especially not afraid of the laity having a rightful place in every aspect of the Church’s liturgy. There can be no such thing as a “private Mass” because the Liturgy requires and includes the participation of the entire Church. The faithful must be present not only for their own worship and salvation, but also to preserve the nature of liturgy itself. And yet, we readily accepted that Mass was closed to the “public” this year during Lent and Easter, and through Pentecost and Ordinary time in many of our dioceses.

Most are also familiar with an interpretation of Vatican II that claims either the council itself went too far beyond the Tradition, or at least the immediate reception of the council departed from the deeper sense of the liturgy. Sacrosanctam Concilium (§ 36, 54, and 101) calls for Latin to be used regularly in the Mass, for example, but Latin it is seldom used in our U.S. parishes. So many things have crept into the way we celebrate Mass and organize parish life that this reading of the Second Vatican Council longs for the time before Pandora’s Box was opened in the 1960s and 70s. In this line of thought, the priest offers sacrifice in the name of the people gathered as the Body of Christ by standing at their head.

Clericalism, of course, would not be ideal, but the role of the cleric is privileged and the role of the laity is to participate more fully with our silence and attention than to participate with our voices and activities. And yet, during our pandemic, the laity demanded not only access to, but participation in the Eucharistic liturgy, and many clerics mobilized immediately to bring the sacraments to the people of God when the Church’s doors were shuttered. Mass was celebrated outside the parish Church building in order to allow the People of God to gather in parking lots and even in homes for small groups of families.

By mid-March of this year nearly every Catholic Mass in the United States was under some form of suspension. Appropriate canonical dispensations from the obligation to attend Mass were given, but they came along with a request (perhaps even a command) not to attend Mass. In many dioceses the faithful were asked simply not to worship at the parish Church for any reason, and priests were instructed to close and lock the doors of the Church while they said Mass in private. There were reports of dioceses even suspending other sacraments, like confession, anointing, and marriage, and even claims that a few bishops were trying to limit baptisms!

The pastoral guidance given was, at first, minimal, but then the live-streamed Mass caught the imagination of the vast majority of those entrusted with pastoral care and quickly became the standard recommendation along with various other forms of pious devotion, like the Rosary. In short, the laity were told by their Bishop to remain removed from their priests and parish communities. Prior to the twentieth century an altar server was “required” to celebrate Mass. During our COVID-19 responses a camera operator seems to have been exchanged for that liturgical role. The laity were encouraged to watch Father at Mass and pray along with him from a distance. In many cases, this appeared to be the best we could manage in a horrible situation.

Here is the oddity: Many of the priests and laity who were the strongest proponents of the live-streamed Mass identify with the first reading of Vatican II in which the full and conscious participation of the laity gathered together in person is considered essential to proper liturgy (SC, § 14 and 41). Note that a live-streamed Mass is one in which a priest and a camera (sometimes with a second person to operate the camera) celebrate liturgy for the whole world to watch. The situation of the laity simply observing priests offer Mass, however, had been one of the strongest critiques of the vetus ordo. The idea that it is “Father’s Mass; he celebrates while you sit and watch silently” is to be avoided. Almost overnight we exchanged what was supposed to be a communal celebration in which each person in the community had a role for a small window of light through which to gaze upon Father celebrating the mysteries.

In some places, digitally enhanced ocular communion was recommended with exposition and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament live-streamed. People watched a video of a monstrance instead of receiving Communion. We “reverted” so quickly to an overtly clerical practice of worship that most of us did not even have time to recognize the whiplash we experienced. Here we must separate a kind of devotional life made possible by technology from the theological principles that creep into our practice and seep back into our theology: Lex orandi lex credendi. There is much to commend leveraging the best of technology in the worst of circumstances, and yet, there are meaningful alternatives that were not widely discussed, recommended, nor practiced. Overlooking these other prayers of the Church indicates a kind of tunnel vision that ignored the depths of Sacrosanctam Concilium and made our Christian vigor awkward.

The endorsement of the live-streamed Mass was never intended to be a replacement for reception of the sacraments. This was obvious in the attempt to apply the same logic to other sacraments. There were bitter debates that were not well resolved about extending the same technology to the sacrament of confession (for example, bishops forbade the use of technology to enhance or transmit the voice used for Confession, making socially distanced absolution exceptionally difficult in some cases). Weddings were simply postponed in many cases at the mutual agreement of the families and the parishes involved. Some things are better done in person.

No one claimed watching Mass was as good as attending Mass, but no one had a better idea. Thus, we slipped quickly and almost quietly into that which the “post-Vatican II” interpretation of the Council previously found intolerable. All of this focus on the live-streamed Mass happened at the same time that we ignored the Book of Blessings and the Liturgy of the Hours. This adds a second layer of oddity to the flip-flop we are experiencing. Instead of turning to ancient liturgies of the Church at which the laity normally preside and which are already designed for “home use,” we focused the majority of our resources on live-streaming Mass for viewing from a distance. We accepted the danger of making liturgy a spectator sport.

There are three most significant liturgies in the Church: the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the Liturgy of the Word, and the Liturgy of the Hours. Eucharist requires Word, and so the two are almost always celebrated together. On rare occasions a parish might celebrate a Liturgy of the Word without the Liturgy of the Eucharist, for example when the Word prepares a parish for confession, or when a marriage is celebrated without Eucharist (as is often the case when one spouse is not Catholic). In many communities, however, all three liturgies are celebrated daily. At a Benedictine monastery it is not uncommon for the Liturgy of the Hours to be celebrated five times each day in addition to daily Mass, and diocesan priests and deacons are generally required to pray the Liturgy of the Hours (also called the “Divine Office”) daily.

The presider for the Liturgy of the Eucharist must be a priest, and the presider at the Liturgy of the Word is typically a cleric or a person otherwise formally recognized and installed by the bishop. The Liturgy of the Hours is properly presided by any baptized faithful. While the Liturgy of the Eucharist is impossible without a priest and the Liturgy of the Word ordinarily involves a cleric, the Liturgy of the Hours does not require a cleric for full and active participation. The Liturgy of the Hours has been prayed in communities without a priest since the earliest days of Christianity. Nuns and sisters have prayed the Liturgy of the Hours without a priest for ages. Many Catholic families and groups of youth pray the Liturgy of the Hours in their own homes. College students gather to say the Liturgy of the Hours in their dorms and chapels.

We were told that due to COVID-19 we could not celebrate together in body, blood, and soul as a diocesan or parish community. Since the Liturgy of the Eucharist requires that we gather together in person, “public Masses” were suspended. This meant that we could not properly celebrate the liturgies at which a cleric normally presides, namely the Liturgy of the Word and the Eucharist. Some bishops were better than others at recommending private or familial study of the lectionary as an approximation for the Liturgy of the Word, but nearly all recommended watching Word and Eucharist livestreamed. Virtually no bishop asked the laity to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. One struggles to find a diocesan-sponsored live-streamed Liturgy of the Hours. One struggles even more to find a live-streamed Divine Office which receives as much preparation or attention as even a daily Mass live-streamed, though some monasteries have been broadcasting the major Hours as a regular practice.

The awkwardness of this situation was nowhere more dramatically evident than at the Easter Vigil. The liturgy actually anticipates that some will attend the Triduum services with a priest at an altar with the Eucharist while others will not be able to celebrate at the Altar of the Lord. For those at a distance, specific Liturgies of the Hours are said, and the two are mutually exclusive. For example, the rubrics for the Triduum include, “Evening Prayer is said only by those who do not participate in the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper.” And yet, online streaming services were commended to the faithful with no catechesis about the Liturgy of the Hours.

Note well that the laity regularly preside over the Liturgy of the Hours and that the rubrics for the Easter Triduum commend Evening Prayer when one cannot attend the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Thus, the progressive put himself in the awkward position of inviting the laity to watch him perform the liturgy instead of recommending that the laity perform the Liturgy for themselves. The case is the same with the Book of Blessings and all the many wonderful prayers and sacramentals that exist for the domestic Church. These were all suddenly ignored by those who were otherwise devoted to such a broad and meaningful celebration of the Liturgy before the outbreak of COVID-19 and our responses to it.

On the reverse side, we find those who were regularly thought to be excessively clerical by embracing the older form of the liturgy. Curiously, these were not the first to put Mass on social media, but rather the last to return to the non-public, private Masses of long ago in which Father celebrates alone or with one or two others. Many of those clerics and laity sought ways to continue to celebrate Mass together. They advocated for outdoor Masses and familial Masses at individual houses. Rites of bringing communion to homes were employed as an alternative to preventing the people from Eucharistic Worship and reception of Communion. Some explicitly disobeyed the directives of their ordinaries in order to celebrate liturgy in person with the People of God. The presence of the Laity, in practice, was considered vitally important to Eucharist and liturgy for those who otherwise appeared to think liturgy was mostly about the cleric. The Liturgical practices we entertained or adopted during various stages of response to the COVID-19 Pandemic have the pre-Conciliar Catholics highlighting a standard focal point for the post-Conciliar Catholics, and vice versa.

We should not denigrate the blessings of modern technology. We must be careful in critiquing the piety of our ancestors or neighbors. As always in spirituality, the real review of conscience must be aimed at ourselves. As a way of highlighting the awkwardness of our age, I have presented each “side” dramatically and assigned them to separate corners in what might be a slightly unfair and harsh reading of their actions. In some ways, the two interpretations described here are caricatures more than easily identifiable and organized groups. Motivations have been suggested where people were perhaps less thoughtful and more reactive. But caricatures are helpful in a review of conscience; they can show us where we are likely to fall if we continue to lean in that direction.

We must ask ourselves difficult questions as we continue to chart our responses to COVID-19 and seek to grow even deeper as the Body of Christ. Compared to the effort put into recruiting followers for live-streamed Masses, what has the effort been to renew the Church with the Liturgy of the Hours? Why has the Book of Blessings been left on the shelf instead of being made as readily available as the videos of Mass? Why have so few livestreamed Morning Prayer? What connection is there between one’s defense or critique of Vatican II prior to our responses to COVID-19 and one’s actions during the pandemic?

There can be little doubt that the ecclesial aisle has been crossed. This crisis has revealed that “camps” within the Church are not as separate from each other as we might have thought. The blessing in this situation is that under pressure, each side saw the appeal of the other in a new way. Perhaps it has also revealed to each of us that we had not completely understood liturgy and ourselves as well as we thought. What remains to be seen is whether we will offer the kiss of peace to our sisters and brothers on the other side of that aisle and call each other back to the center for a common procession to the Altar of the Lord where we can continue to receive and to be the Body of Christ.

Featured Image: Tânia Rêgo / agenciabrasil, Street art in Rio de Janeiro at the 2016 Olympics, taken on 15 August 2016; Source: Wikimedia Commons, Attribution CC BY 3.0 BR.


Thomas Humphries

Thomas L. Humphries, Jr, is an Associate Professor of philosophy, theology, and religion at Saint Leo University, a Catholic Benedictine University in Florida. He is the author of Ascetic Pneumatology and Who Is Chosen?

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